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ebbf Michael Karlberg keynote reinventing the corporation

Here is the summary of another of the ebbf “make it meaningful, offering a new paradigm of work” 21st annual conference keynotes, it comes from Michael Karlberg:

“This conference is playing out against a backdrop of accelerating processes of social disintegration. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that human civilization, as we know it, is collapsing. Inherited habits of mind, inherited patterns of behavior, inherited organizational forms – in short, inherited cultural codes of all kinds – are proving to be grossly maladaptive in the age we are entering an age of increasing global interdependence.

The result, we can see all around us if we open our eyes, is human suffering, social dislocation, and ecological degradation on an unprecedented and frightening scale. One of the inherited habits of mind that led us to this crisis of civilization is the assumption that economic activity is the center of human existence and the driver of human progress. From the Capitalist revolution ushered in by Adam Smith, to the Communist reaction ushered in by Karl Marx, to the approach to reconstructing Europe after the devastation of World War II, to the international development campaigns of the post-colonial era that followed running throughout this entire history is the misinformed assumption that economic activity is the center of human existence and the driver of human progress. But it is not.

The driver of human progress is the process of collective learning or the collective generation and application of knowledge about material and spiritual reality. This includes knowledge about our true nature as human beings, about our latent capacities, and about the means by which we can cultivate and harness those latent capacities for the betterment of society. This also includes knowledge about the principles that govern our material and spiritual existence, and knowledge about how we can apply those principles to the advancement of civilization.

These are the true drivers of human progress. As Abdu’l-Baha has said, “the generation of knowledge is the very foundation of all individual and national development. Without this development is impossible.”

This is why the Universal House of Justice, in its Ridvan 2010 message to the Baha’is of the World, placed so much emphasis on the emerging culture of learning in the Baha’i­ community, and on the centrality of knowledge to social existence. And why they urged us all to become protagonists of a constant effort to apply knowledge to effect individual and collective transformation. And why they pointed out that participation in [the] generation, application and diffusion [of knowledge is] a responsibility that all must shoulder in the great enterprise of building a prosperous world civilization.

With this in mind, we can recognize that economic activity is only one of many interrelated domains of collective learning. So the central question before the ebbf, it seems to me, is:

how can we become increasingly purposeful and systematic in this process of collective learning, in the domain of economic activity and how can we do this in a manner that is coherent with our true nature and with the principles that govern material and spiritual reality?

This is a question that all of us should be grappling with, because we are all still learning about collective learning.

Recently, I’ve been collaborating with a group of entrepreneurs who have come together under the name Harmony Equity Group and who are trying to foster a growing learning community focused on the domain of economic activity, with a specific focus on reinventing the modern corporation. We are focusing on the modern corporation because it’s become a somewhat pathological form of human organisation that’s at least partially responsible for many of the social and ecological ills facing humanity today.

So, in order to foster a learning community about the reinvention of the modern corporation, the Harmony Equity Group’s first step was to study and reflect on the process of collective learning itself.

How does the systematic generation and application of knowledge advance?

By looking at the history of science, we can see that this process advances most effectively and systematically when it occurs within an evolving conceptual framework that has certain characteristics: First, such a framework is characterized by core elements – core assumptions, concepts, principles, and methods – that are intuitively attractive, highly compelling, and suggestive of significant lines of inquiry and learning. Historians and philosophers of science refer to these core elements as the heuristic of a conceptual framework, the driving force behind the generation of knowledge.

But an effective conceptual framework is also characterized by a level of secondary, evolving elements: hypotheses, ideas, tentative insights and theoretical commitments that have to be tested through experience, observation, and experimentation. These are elements that emerge, are applied, are discarded or adopted, and refined over time, in an evolving manner.

This is the domain of active learning, the frontier of advancing knowledge, that’s generated by the framework’s core heuristic. For Baha’is in the audience, you may recognize that this is how knowledge about community growth and development is being systematically generated within the Baha’i community today.

The process is advancing within a framework characterized by certain core, immutable concepts, principles, and approaches that drive the frontiers of learning forward at the level of these secondary elements that are tested and refined through practical application, observation, and learning in action.

So, with these insights about learning in mind, the Harmony Equity Group has tried to articulate some core elements of a framework that can guide and drive its learning about the transformation of economic activity, and the reinvention of the modern corporation.

These core elements include:

– A recognition of the dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual dimensions of reality.

– A conception of the organic unity and interdependence of humanity, or a vision of humanity as a single social body.

– An acknowledgement of the reciprocal relationship between unity and justice in human affairs. And faith in the latent human capacity for altruistic service to others.

Each of these core elements, as they pertain specifically to the modern corporation, has been explored in an initial framework document developed by the Harmony Equity Group. And a series of practical questions have been drawn from these core elements, questions that frame lines of collective learning for the group.

Based on this initial framework document, the group has also drafted a set of five short study units that are being used to guide small group conversations about the reinvention of the modern corporation. The first unit, On Learning, examines the concept of a learning community, the consultative mode of learning-in-action that characterizes such a community, and the premise that collective learning proceeds most effectively within a shared, yet evolving, conceptual framework as I’ve just alluded to.

The second unit, On Spiritual Reality, examines the materialistic conception of human nature that dominates contemporary economic thought, along with the consequences of this conception; and it then explores the existence of a higher spiritual nature, examines ways that we might systematically cultivate our spiritual nature, and explores some of the implications of this for the economic activities we engage in.

The third unit, On Oneness, examines the prevailing conception of society as a social contest, discusses the value of reconceptualizing society as a unified and interdependent social body, and explores some of the implications of this for economic activity.

The fourth unit, On Justice, considers the role of justice as the fundamental organizing principle of a unified and interdependent society, and then explores some of the implications of this principle for a corporation’s internal structure and operation, as well as a corporation’s external impacts and relationships.

And the fifth unit, On Altruism, dives deeper into the discussion of human nature by examining some of the personal qualities and attitudes of individual corporate actors that appear to be requisites of social justice and unity, and the question of how to cultivate them in an organizational context.

All of these units are constructed around open-ended questions that, again, frame ongoing lines of collective, practical learning. The group’s goal, in this regard, is to invite a growing number of interested people to form small study groups, discuss these materials together, and contribute to an emerging learning community that seeks, over time, to generate and apply knowledge along these lines – knowledge about the reinvention of the modern corporation.

Earlier in this conference I held a workshop in which we explored elements of this conceptual framework in greater depth, and began the kinds of conversations this learning community is fostering. These workshops include information about how to get involved in this learning community, but if you are interested in getting involved, you can send an email requesting information on how to get involved to this email address:

On that note, I want to wrap up my comments with the following thoughts:

The broad principles I referred to earlier, which derive from the Revelation of Baha’u’llah, and constitute the core of the Harmony Equity Group’s framework, could easily be interpreted as little more than abstract and pious ideals. But such an interpretation fails to grasp the profound practical implications, transformative implications, of principles and concepts that are central to the Revelation of Baha’u’llah. Consider, for instance, the principles of the oneness of humanity, or the organic unity and interdependence of humanity.

The purpose and goal of social evolution is that humanity will eventually learn, in Baha’u’llah’s words, to “become even as one soul in one body.”

This is the divine civilization that humanity longs for, and that so many poets, visionaries and prophets of old have alluded to. This organic unity is the fruit that must eventually be yielded by an evolutionary process that stretches back thousands of years. This organic unity is the latent reality that must now, at this critical juncture in human history, be translated into an actual social reality.

But what does it mean, in practical terms, to become “even as one soul and one body”? What does it mean to become a single, unified, organically interdependent social body? What would economic activity look like within such a body? And what function would a corporation serve?

If we look more closely at the analogy between the human body and the social body, which Baha’u’llah frequently employs, we can recognize that individual human beings are, in many respects, like individual cells in the social body, with each cell contributing to, and deriving its well-being from, the well-being of the entire body.

But how might corporations be understood within the analogy of the social body? Are they not, in many respects, a type of organ within the social body? And like organs, should they not each contribute to, and derive their well-being from, the well-being of the entire social body?

The Harmony Equity Group believes that this insight provides the standard by which we must begin to assess the governance, internal operations, and external relations of every corporation. And yet, how far from this standard are so many corporations today, which compete with one another for the accumulation of gross concentrations of wealth, often by producing goods and services that are of no benefit and may even be harmful to the well-being of the larger social body, even as they externalize the costs and consequences of this self-interested competition on other members of the social body.

So we can see how the principle of organic unity or oneness suggests an urgent need to reinvent the modern corporation, and provides a heuristic for the generation and application of knowledge about the reinvention of the corporation. But this is a long-term process of collective learning.

There are, as the Universal House of Justice says, no short cuts and no simple formulas on this path of learning. We have to learn our way forward in a conscious, intentional, collective, and systematic manner, within a framework that is coherent with our true nature, and is consistent with the principles governing our spiritual and material reality.So if you would like to join the Harmony Equity Group in its efforts to systematize this kind of collective learning process, aimed at the reinvention of the modern corporation, you are most welcome to do so.

And perhaps the ebbf can serve, among other things, as an annual face-to-face reflection gathering for this learning community, in support of a long-term process of collective learning.

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